The Book of Revelation tells of Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The first rider clothed in white comes out to conquer. The second in red represents civil war and slaughter. The third in black is famine. The fourth rider is on a pale green horse:
“Its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed with him; they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, famine and pestilence and by the wild animals of the earth.”
As Christians in the 21st century, we know and understand these four terrible riders and all they symbolise. We see the war of intended conquest in Ukraine and witness the suffering which flows from that. We see civil war in South Sudan and Yemen and the terrible toll on entire populations. We understand famine and want and the rising numbers of the world’s population who live below subsistence level. And we know that Death and Hades have come closer to home through a global pandemic which has claimed so many lives.
But in the 21st century there are two new riders, and they are the subject of much of our Synod meeting this March.
The fifth horseman is invisible. This rider represents the unseen blanket of greenhouse gas which silently envelopes the earth, year by year trapping more of the sun’s energy inside the atmosphere and raising global temperatures to critical levels. This horseman has the power to disrupt weather, to extend deserts, to set fire to the forests, to cause floods and storms, to melt the ice caps and raise sea levels to disastrous levels.
This rider can be stopped. The world has a small window in which to act. But only if every nation, every institution, every faith, every family act together to reach net zero and do so without delay.
The sixth rider is astride a grey horse, made of gunmetal; a machine, not a living creature, spewing an invisible poison from its mouth. This rider is hard to see against the landscape. Its work is gradual, not sudden, a silent undermining of the vital web of life.
Earth is the only planet, the only corner of this vast universe, where we are certain there is abundant life. Yet the once rich tapestry of life on earth is now being degraded year by year because of the expansion and greed of a single species, ourselves.
The sixth rider represents the systemic destruction of nature, the second great environmental challenge of our time. This rider works destruction by stealth and in secret. The birds fall silent. The insects disappear. The soil is less rich in micro-organisms. The fish die in the rivers. Humanity is putting at risk the very eco system on which our life depends.
There are signs that the world is waking up to the environmental disaster we face. Wildlife populations worldwide declined by an average of 69% between 1970 and 2018. Latin America and the Caribbean experienced a 94% drop in the wildlife population. Wild animals now account for just 4% of mammal biomass globally: humans and our livestock account for the other 96%. 60% of the UK’s flying insects have vanished in the last 20 years. They are vital for pollination and for the food chain. Britain is currently one of the most nature depleted countries in the world. Over 1 million species are currently threatened with extinction.
These two new horsemen of the apocalypse work closely together in a spiral of destruction. Biodiversity loss is one of the accelerators of climate change. Global heating leads to more diversity loss. Both need to be addressed together. Both need to be addressed locally as well as globally.
Why should Christians care?
This is a critical moment. In December the world agreed a new set of global targets for restoring nature at the COP15 conference in Montreal. The principal goal of the Kinming-Montreal agreement is to protect 30% of the earth’s land, oceans, coastal areas and inland waters by 2030.
Just six days ago, the news led with agreement of the UN High Seas Treaty setting 30% of the world’s oceans into protected areas. 30% is not a random number. It represents the scientific consensus on the minimum protected area which will allow the regeneration of the whole. Tomorrow, David Attenborough begins a major new television series, Wild Isles, focussing on the decline in biodiversity in Britain and Ireland and how that can be addressed.
But why should Christians care? Why should the diocese or the local church invest resources in restoring nature alongside working towards net zero? Why do we need to work at the ecological conversion of every disciple, in the words of Pope Francis? Why should we be giving our time today to this aspect of God’s mission?
There are a million reasons why. The most immediate is, of course, the whole future of life on earth; the love we bear our neighbours, our children and grandchildren and those who will come after us. Our life is inextricably linked to and dependent on the biodiversity of the earth. Yet scientists have named these decades as the Age of Extinction.
If we sleepwalk through the next ten years, the tragedy will be indescribable and irreversible for the whole future of life on earth.
From Genesis to Revelation
The Bible teaches us from Genesis to Revelation that humanity is part of God’s creation with a particular relationship with the natural world. If you doubt that you might want to explore Psalm 104 or the final chapters of Job or Proverbs 8 or the Sermon on the Mount or Colossians 1. Read each text through the lens of these two terrible Riders.
But for today let me take you to just a handful of verses in the Book of Genesis. Genesis 1, as you will know, describes the creation of the heavens and the earth with humankind created on the sixth day. There God gives to humanity responsibility for the earth:
“God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth”.
Those words fill and subdue and ‘have dominion’ are sometimes misunderstood as giving authority to exploit creation and misuse nature. But properly interpreted they give dignity and agency and responsibility – a sacred trust – to every human person, male and female. This is the stewardship of a good shepherd with responsibility to care for the flock, not the authority to plunder or destroy.
That responsibility is made very clear in the second creation story in Genesis 2. Here we read:
“The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.”
The word translated ’till’ here is found again in Genesis 3.23:
“… the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken”. We have the command to till before and after the fall.
To serve and steward
So what is the core meaning of that word ’till’? The Hebrew word is not the normal word for ploughing or gardening. The Hebrew word is ‘ebed. The root meaning of the word is ‘to serve’. ‘Ebed can also mean to worship and to work. It is the word used of the service of God and of the servant of the Lord in other Old Testament texts. It is a key word for Jesus understanding of his ministry and our understanding of who Jesus is. The word keep means to watch over, to guard.
Humanity is here given a sacred responsibility to serve and steward and watch over the earth: the land and the water and all that lives in them. Hebrew scholars note that ‘ebed can also be translated as observe, preserve and conserve, all variations of the English verb to serve. Tilling and keeping the earth are foundational to the exploration of human identity and vocation.
Pope Francis’ great encyclical, Laudato’ Si explores these texts in Genesis. They “suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself. According to the Bible, these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin.”
Restoring our relationship with the earth is therefore core to our own salvation, won by Christ on the cross. In Romans 8, Paul explores the relationship between our own salvation as women and men and the salvation and healing of the earth:
“For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope, that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God, We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now;” (Romans 8.19-22).
Conservation is not enough
So what are the ways in which we can, with others, repair and restore creation in the places where we live? Conservation is not enough. We have a tremendous opportunity as a diocese to shape and influence the ecology of the Thames Valley in the coming years.
We are able as we know to help and support the pathway to net zero through the actions we take in schools and churches and vicarages across the three counties. Every single place has a church and congregation who are able to work together with their community to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and work to restore and rebuild the natural world. We have green spaces and churchyards. Individually we own farms and gardens.
Churches across the diocese are rewilding their churchyards to encourage biodiversity and provide a rich habitat for flora and fauna to flourish within the framework of EcoChurch. St Mary’s Church in Wargrave introduced a Let it Grow zone in part of their churchyard by halting regular mowing and strimming of the grass. This has promoted wildflower growth and provides habitat for animals and invertebrate species helping to increase the biodiversity of the churchyard. The church has also installed bat boxes and bird boxes and created a large compost area that provides shelter for hedgehogs. Imagine if Wargrave’s story was repeated over 800 times in every churchyard in the diocese?
As Christians we can work in partnership with others. I’m delighted that the diocese has an active partnership with the Berks, Bucks and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust. The trust will be running two training courses in our churchyards in April and May – one about managing green spaces and the other on doing a basic site survey (species identification, vegetation types etc). There is an inspiring webpage called Wilder Churches, which features examples of churches in the Diocese of Oxford taking action and steps others can take.
Engaging with green issues
Local Christians and churches can stimulate wider initiatives for nature. Hungerford has a great story about tree planting – 6,440 trees supplied by the Woodland Trust to date! Churches in Greenham and Wendover and elsewhere are also planting trees, though not at such scale. Engaging with gardening and green issues and biodiversity is becoming a normal part of church life across the diocese.
There will be a particular opportunity in the next few years for local government to play a key role – and therefore for Christians to be involved in shaping nature recovery. Last year the UK government launched the Nature Recovery Network through Natural England, which draws together partners across the community. A key part of the Nature Recovery Network will be for every county and local authority to draw up its own Local Nature Recovery Strategy (LRNS). These will be a key building block for the recovery of nature nationally. They are a key outcome of the Environment Act 2021.
The government is taking further initiatives on local planning, on land use, sustainable farming, care of the soil and rivers which all offer opportunities for partnership and for the voices of local people to be heard. We must not be silent for the sake of the earth. As many will know, I’m part of the House of Lords Environment and Climate Select Committee. We have just begun our third major enquiry on protected areas to scrutinise the government’s plans to protect 30% of our land and coastal areas by 2030.
The earth needs humankind to till it and keep it. Humanity needs the earth for our survival, for our health, for human flourishing. We need clean air, clean water, abundant biodiversity. We need not just to conserve but to restore the natural world carefully and intentionally in the coming decade.
The Church of England is not able to do this by ourselves but we can and we should offer leadership wherever we can for the sake of the Earth.
The two new Horsemen of the Apocalypse are truly terrifying. We have time, just, to respond to the challenges they bring. May God give us grace and strength to work together in this generation for the renewal of the earth.
Watch Bishop Steven’s address to Diocesan Synod
The once rich tapestry of life on earth is now being degraded year by year because of the expansion and greed of a single species: our selves. Our life is inextricably linked to and dependent on the biodiversity of the Earth. While there are signs that the world is waking up to the environmental disaster we face, Britain is currently one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world.
Watch a recording of the Presidential Address to Oxford Diocesan Synod, given by the Rt Revd Dr Steven Croft, Bishop of Oxford, on 11 March 2023.